The Block Museum’s Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt examines ancient Egyptian funerary portraits in light of recent Northwestern research about an item in its own collection, a complete portrait mummy of a young girl. The mummy is one of around only 100 known mummies with the original funerary portrait still intact.
The naturalistic funerary portraits found on mummies are the only large body of artwork to have survived from the Roman period in Egypt, which lasted from around the 1st to the 3rd centuries C.E.
Other than Northwestern’s mummy, most of the other objects in the show are on loan from the University of California Berkeley and were excavated from a site known as Tebtunis around 1900. The area was part of a larger settlement that became home to many Greek immigrants after Alexander the Great came to Egypt in 332 B.C.E.
The shift in Egyptian culture after the arrival of the Greek population is evident when looking at the difference in the mummy masks displayed in the show. Even though the Greeks in power were eventually taken over by the Romans when Octavian defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra VII, Greek remained the written language and Greek cultural influence remained strong.
The earliest dated mummy masks on display are three-dimensional plaster casts that were placed over the head of a mummified body, adorned with depictions of the Egyptian god Horus shown in the form of a Falcon. The later masks are two dimensional portraits painted on panels of wood. The portraits would have been placed flat over the mummified face. According to the wall text, on these portraits, the “hairstyles and clothing depicted often reflected the latest Roman fashions, showing the interaction and blending of cultural practices.”
One section of the exhibition celebrated the extremely talented “panel painters” of the ancient world. Of the later masks, three of the portraits on display are possibly from the same workshop. This speaks to the fact that funerary portrait painting was a flourishing profession in ancient Egyptian world. Even though these funerary masks are essentially the only art to have survived from then to now, the exhibition overall is an interesting delve into a form of portraiture.
The curators also put ancient Egyptian writing and painting tools on display, so that visitors could get a sense of what the artists were working with. They also included a timeline that showed the different periods and how that would impact the cultural exchange.
Of course, the crown jewel of the show is Northwestern’s complete portrait mummy. Coming around the corner, it was somewhat of a shock to be confronted with the mummy laying in the center of the room in a vitrine; it commanded an unexpected presence. Even though the mummy itself is small, the body has a large presence in the room. One of the most informative features of the exhibition is the interactive iPad that has screens with different kinds of “x-ray” scans of the mummy for visitors to scroll through that show what is underneath the linen wrapping.
The exhibition is also a reminder of how deeply rooted religious symbols are in the history of art. Discussing a piece of wall panel from an ancient temple on display, the wall text states, “Some of the most recognizable elements in these images would reappear much later in Christian iconography: the enthroned deity, the halo, and the triptych.” This brought to mind the current focus on Christian iconography in art and popular culture, specifically, the Metropolitan Museum’s upcoming spring 2018 Costume Institute show. Pop culture today draws a lot of imagery form Christianity, but it is interesting to remember that early Christians drew their iconography from the source they knew…antiquity.